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No Non-Sense Note Taking

Below are some basic no non-sense note taking tips from the LARC. In addition, the LARC offers the Cornell System for taking notes, and the "5R" System.

  1. Arrive to class on time.
  2. Sit up front so you can see and hear well.
  3. Use a loose-leaf notebook so you can rearrange pages and add in hand-outs where they belong. (Also, you're less apt to lose notes when using a loose-leaf.)
  4. Always title and date your notes.
  5. Be prepared for class. If possible, read ahead so the lecture information makes sense and is familiar to you.
  6. Listen closely for changes in pitch, volume and tone. Watch closely for changes in movement and gestures. Most of these cues signal that a main point is about to be presented.
  7. Try your hardest to take notes in your own words.
  8. Use keywords. It's best not to use complete paragraph and sentence form. Not only is it unnecessary, but you don't have time.
  9. Use as many abbreviations as possible. Make up your own!
  10. Use a pen, ink lasts longer!
  11. Use various notations to point out main ideas and important details. (*stars, arrows, [brackets], boxes, etc.)
  12. Don't be afraid to use a good deal of paper. Give yourself plenty of room!
  13. If you miss something or fall behind, leave a space and move on. Get the missing information from a classmate or the instructor later.
  14. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you cannot interrupt a lecture, make a quick note of your question and ask it later.
  15. Review your notes daily or as often as possible. This will help you learn the information, and it saves time on studying.

The Cornell System

The Cornell system for taking notes is designed to save time, but yet be highly efficient. There is no rewriting or retyping of your notes. It is a "do it right in the first place" system.

Cornell System for note taking example

An example of the Cornell System for note taking

  • Preparation
    • Use a large, loose-leaf notebook. Use only one side of the paper. (you then can lay your notes out to see the direction of a lecture.) Draw a vertical line 2 1/2 inches from the left side of you paper. This is the recall column. Notes will be taken to the right of this margin. Later key words or phrases can be written in the recall column.
  • During the lecture
    • Record notes in paragraph form. Capture general ideas, not illustrative ideas. Skip lines to show end of ideas or thoughts. Using abbreviations will save time. Write legibly.
  • After the lecture
    • Read through your notes and make it more legible if necessary. Now use the column. Jot down ideas or key words which give you the idea of the lecture. (REDUCE) You will have to reread the lecturer's ideas and reflect in your own words. Cover up the right-hand portion of your notes and recite the general ideas and concepts of the lecture. Overlap your notes showing only recall columns and you have your review.

The '5 R' System

RECORD: Know the course outline and take notes on what is important according to the course framework. Look for signals from the lecturer -- verbal and non-verbal -- to tell you what's important.  Headings on overheads are obvious, but profs also use body language and pauses in speaking. Verbal cues include transitions ("I'd like to turn now to ...") and breakdowns ("There are three main issues involved here ...")

  • Your aim is to map the main topics and examples discussed, not to transcribe everything
  • Use spacing and visual layout to show the groupings of ideas.
  • Be sure to leave wide left and bottom margins on each page for further comments of your own.

REDUCE: Soon after the lecture, reread your notes for sense and accuracy. Make sure everything is accurate and complete. Then pick out key words and write them in the left margin.

RECITE: Cover your notes and use the key words in the margins as cues to recall everything you can about the topic.

REFLECT: Write your reflections about the topic on the lower part of the page. Also questions your notes raise for you. Relate your notes to other points in previous lectures or readings and to your upcoming essay topics. Include your own thinking on the subject, on your experiences as an individual, on ways in which you agree and disagree.

REVIEW (for exams): Before an exam, recite repeatedly, again covering notes and using marginal key words as cues. Think again about how the notes relate to the overall framework of the course.

Look and Listen

You have one chance to hear and observe the lecturer. Therefore, you must listen and look sharply from the moment the lecturer begins. The lecturer may announce the topic of the lecture and her/his purposes in the opening moments. If you are organized and ready to listen and take notes before the lecture begins, you will have a positive mindset.

  1. Prepare to listen. Your attitude in attending class is of major importance. If you feel that a particular lecture is a waste of time, you will be in no mood to listen. You should decide before a lecture that your class time will be well spent as a learning experience.
  2. Pay attention to questions. The questions put forth by students and the instructors are important parts of the classroom learning experience. When the instructor asks a question, s/he is usually discussing something of importance and trying to make a point. When you or other students make inquiries, you signal the instructor that the message isn't clear. Both types of questions will serve to clarify lecture material and both types may appear on quizzes or tests. Write them down!
  3. Listen for clues in what the speaker says to help you decipher what is important - a clue or phrase that literally states in advance that something important is going to be said, for example, "Here's the key..." or "One significant reason for this is..."
  4. Repetition. Repeated information is probably worth noting. "Once again...," "As I said before...," or "In other words...."
  5. Issues. Points of controversy or contrasting ideas make excellent essay questions! "Some people feel that..., but others...."
  6. Consensus information that is presented as accepted by all is usually important and should be taken down. "Experts agree...."
  7. Absolutes. Few things in life are absolute, so note words that signal absolutes: "always," "never," "all," "everyone," "none," etc.
  8. Review. A review should itemize key points, so jot these down: "In summary...," "In conclusion...," or "So, to sum all of this up..."

The following are some suggestions for close and careful observation during a lecture.

  1. Gestures: Watch for pointing, waving arms, tapping on the chalkboard, etc. These can signal important information.
  2. Change in movement: If the lecturer is sitting and then stands, or is leaning and then walks, or is pacing and then stops, she or he could be making an important point.
  3. Facial expressions: Watch the face for raised eyebrows, grimaces, or intense staring. Any of these can mean business.
  4. Changes in volume: Be aware of the voice going from soft to loud, or loud to soft. The lecturer may do this to get attention.
  5. Changes in tempo: A lecturer may slow down or speed up to emphasize a point.
  6. Obvious pause: There may suddenly be a complete stop in the presentation. This is a "loaded silence" and is usually followed by important information.
  7. Writing on the board: Some instructors, the "nice" ones, put the most important information on the board. Anything ever written on the board during a lecture is worth copying down into your notes.